Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Suggestion for Neil Godfrey

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Neil Godfrey has written an interesting blog post about the inspiring story of Jack Andraka, a 16 year old high school student who, with a bit of help from Google, Wikipedia, and some open access journals, has developed a revolutionary new test for pancreatic cancer.

Andraka wrote to 200 established scientists asking for the help he needed to put his theory to the test. 199 politely declined, but one scientist, Anirban Maitra, a Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, offered Andraka assistance, in the form of lab access and the support of a postdoctoral chemist.

Neil questions whether Andraka would have been taken seriously if his area of interest were Biblical Studies, rather than medicine. He writes: 

The ideological nature of [Biblical Studies] will never allow it… Andraka the Bible student would be scoffed at as not having qualifications, not having published, not being a “real Scholar”. And the one out of 200 who might be sympathetic to his views would probably have to remain silent for fear of ridicule and security of tenure. 

Now, having studied Religious Studies at degree level, having no job in academia protect or religious beliefs to defend, I have to say that I disagree with Neil’s assessment of Biblical Studies. However, I think that the story of Jack Andraka suggests a way of objectively testing Neil’s claims about Biblical Studies, and what's more, I’d be more than happy to work with Neil to do this.

Overall, it seems that Neil is offering a hypothesis about Biblical Studies, which is:

A) A proposal from a non-scholar requesting assistance from Bible scholars would receive a more negative response than the proposal from Jack Andraka. Therefore:

B) Biblical Studies is more ideological than the sciences.
I think that we could design a straightforward experiment that would test whether statement A is true, and as a consequence establish the validity of statement B. The experiment would work something like this:
  1. We know that Jack Andraka received a positive response rate of 0.5% (one positive response out of two hundred requests), so an equivalent request to Bible scholars should be receive a lower response rate, assuming that statement A is true.
  2. We could agree upon and outline an idea that we think has some merit and that might improve Biblical Studies in some regard. 
  3. We would then contact 200 established Bible scholars, requesting as non-scholars some form of assistance necessary to develop our idea (e.g. translating a particular passage, help learning a language, access to a particular text or artefact.)
  4. We would then compare the positive response rate of Bible scholars with the positive response rate that Andraka received (0.5%).
  5. If our experiment resulted in a lower positive response rate from Bible Scholars than Andraka received (i.e. below 0.5%), then statement A would be proven and I think we would have good grounds to think that, by implication, statement B is likewise true. Conversely if the positive response rate were equal to or greater than 0.5%, then statement A would be false, and we would likewise have good grounds to doubt the truth of statement B.
Neil rightly points out that most theories or claims within Biblical Studies claims are not capable of empirical testing in quite the same way as scientific theories (which would equally apply most Arts/Humanities subjects). However, since we’re interested in how scholars respond to novel ideas from non-scholars, rather than the truth of those ideas, this wouldn’t really matter to the experiment I’ve suggested above. 

Of course, I’d welcome any suggestions to revise or improve my proposed experiment: Agreeing on an idea that we both think is worth investigating might prove tricky, as might establishing in advance what counts as a “positive response”. The way I’ve formulated Neil’s hypothesis in statement B might not quite reflect Neil’s actual argument, and need a bit of refining. We’d also need to check that the figure of 1 out of 200 scientists offering help is true rather than a piece of journalistic exaggeration. However, I don’t think that any of these issues are insurmountable with a bit of good will on both sides.

So how about it Neil?